Community and technology have merged in a way that we can scarcely imagine a future otherwise.
A Local Update
As I write this, we have just rounded out our 7th week in lockdown, here in South Africa. Originally, we were only going to be locked down for 21 days, although we all knew that was going to be extended if other countries were anything to go by. Before those three weeks were up, however, it was extended to a further 2 weeks, after which we instituted a level 4 lockdown (previously a level 5) and some businesses could return to work.
I bring this up, because there is no particular end in sight, and the country is feeling that quite hard, to say the least. With this situation becoming more of a reality than we originally anticipated, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future, its own unique set of challenges arise. Namely, one that I know I’m not the only one feeling the effects of, is what I call Notification Fatigue.
Systems, Systems & More Systems
Not too long ago, my Honours class was tasked with a little research project, coupled with a mini-interview we had to do with someone in our immediate circles. The topic: Socio-Technical Systems. In laymen’s terms, a socio-technical system is a system that, in order to function, has requirements that span hardware, software, personal, and community aspects. Essentially, the interrelatedness of social and technical systems within an organisation or even society as a whole.
We were tasked with doing a little bit of research into this and then trying to find which socio-technical systems we are currently a part of; and then to interview someone close to us and ask them the same thing. Being home with family for this lockdown, I decided to speak with my mother, who is a school teacher. Knowing that she and I recently had to learn and adapt our teaching styles into online-friendly ones, I figured this would be an interesting topic to talk about.
As I had imagined, this ended up being a large part of our discussion, since the education systems we are a part of have suddenly become far more socio-technical than they were before, by necessity rather than choice.
Funnily enough, we find ourselves a part of many of these kinds of systems. Take WhatsApp for example, and its uses as a community platform bridging the gap between us and our neighbours and friends, with technology that allows us to communicate and remain as much of a community as we can still manage. Social media networks are another fantastic example of socio-technical systems. Just think about how much closer we are as community members using this technology that allows us to share our lives and interact on a global scale. Community and technology have merged in a way that we can scarcely imagine a future otherwise.
Education, however, I don’t think was ready for that leap just yet. Yes, there are many online and technology-driven learning platforms out there, but when it comes to governmental and foundation-phase learning, personal connectivity and close-proximity learning are still vital in that process.
I take my hat off to the teachers and learners out there who have managed to break through their frustrations and comfort-zones and adapt to the circumstances we find ourselves in. The reality is brick and mortar learning environments aren’t nearly as possible right now as they were 2 months ago. And there is nothing right now that will change the fact that online and virtual learning is all we have to tide us through this.
But what happens when you suddenly take people who have spent years getting used to one system, borderline perfecting it, and throw them into the unknown and expect them to work and produce exactly the same? Chaos and panic. That’s what happens.
The day prior to the discussion I had with my mother, was a challenging one for her, as it would have been for anyone else. Recently migrating the classroom to Microsoft Teams should be an easy task on its own, and it was, more or less. Where the trouble usually comes in with platforms like these, is that they are designed on a razor-blade for and between people who know exactly what they’re doing and those that don’t.
The developer’s reality is that you can’t perfectly design and develop a platform for both, because there will always be a group that will miss out. If you are a pro and this is a platform for noobs then you’ll likely be turned off from its lack of pro functionality and multifunctional tools. In the same vein, if you’re a newbie, you likely won’t even bother trying to learn a fully functioning professional platform because onboarding and training will be too intensive and frustrating.
The middle-ground between these two, in my experience, lies in the customisable settings that are available to tweak. The problem, though, is that if you don’t know what to look for, you’re in for a rough ride until you do. This is what happened with my mom, and many people I know in similar situations, myself included.
At first, these systems can be empowering, allowing functionality and productivity beyond what was possible before, but there are some trade-offs. Namely, if you don’t know how to manage them, your sanity.
It’s Not The Same And It Never Will Be
For those of you who think online learning is the same as proximity learning, then you’ve never had to prepare a class before. This might be a contentious thing to say, but it truly is not the same, both from the front and the back of the class.
Physical classrooms allow you to enter a room and turn off your distractions, literally. You can sit down at a desk, keep your phone in your pocket or your bag, and close your laptop until work is required. The best thing that physical learning environments offer is that they offer the opportunity to focus on one thing for a particular length of time. You enter, close the door behind you, sit down, listen, interact, get up and leave. Did the world change while you were in there? Not in any monumental way (bar for a few exceptions of course). And what did you do after that? You caught up on what you may have missed out on.
Do you know what the biggest problem with online learning is? In our age of digital integration and online social networking, you are now learning and having to pay attention to the exact device that distracts you from the learning itself. One of the largest challenges that new online-learners face in these environments is being able to switch off the outside world and focus on what is right in front of us.
That’s where your emails are, that’s where a lot of your notifications are and that’s now where you have to ignore those things to focus on your learning or teaching (this is a challenge for both learners and teachers). Where you would be able to check your emails after a lesson, you now get them immediately while you’re teaching; and where your friends are furiously conversing on your group chat, those notifications keep popping up while you’re delivering a presentation.
Yes, you can, of course, switch your email and notifications off during that time, but the hassle of doing that every single time can become cumbersome and frustrating, setting a bad tone for the session you’re about to sit down for.
This is exactly what happened to me recently. I was delivering a presentation, which was stressful on its own. As I switched off my mic to listen to the feedback I was bombarded with emails and notes for my next class, with notifications from my Discord group, newsletters flying into my inbox for completely different topics and a reminder telling me to share that day’s scheduled post on Instagram. All of this happened in practically 2 minutes and I felt my blood pressure rising by each minute.
Yes, there are settings you can change that can mitigate a lot of that, but you have to do exactly that: change them. They’re not already set up that way. As a default, you are primed to receive a bombardment of notifications for all sorts of things, and that’s only for one app. When you have more that you regularly use, the effects are only amplified.
Also, we don’t always know how to change these settings, to alleviate the perceived pressure of having to respond immediately to something that pops up. You won’t die if you don’t, but it will often feel like you will. You can thank dopamine for that. Those settings are usually buried in a myriad of menus and sub-menus, making it harder for you to find them and come up for air. And, unfortunately, it shows.
With a great deal of us being home and in front of our computers for everything, from working to relaxing, and from learning to teaching, we are finding it harder than ever to detach. Before, you could close the computer and then go hang out with your friends. You could put your phone in your pocket and step into a classroom or a meeting. Now, everything is blurred.
I sit in the exact same chair for everything I used to do in completely different chairs before. Literally. I get up out of one, get into my car and drive to another, completely different physical environment. An environment that fosters different mental models, different work and different results. Now everything is done on the same computer, using the same keyboard, on the same chair in the same room for 7 damn weeks. We used to literally move between tasks and environments, and now we click to close one and click again to open another in the same 5 seconds. And I don’t know about you, but it is tiring.
We Can’t Escape, But We Can Manage
The reality is that we cannot fully escape these technical systems without losing on the socio-part. We have to use them or our worlds start to fall apart. During our conversation, I asked my mother if she had the choice between doing what she does online vs in person, what she would choose. And hands-down, as I expected, she opted to ditch the technology and work with her children right in front of her. She is a drama teacher, and so technology doesn’t exactly work well in her particular niche, but the sentiment is felt across most disciplines.
Right now, however, we don’t have that choice. We are faced with a pandemic that has thrown a spanner into the works that will take a very long time to fish out. We don’t get to have what we had before, along with their luxuries. All we can do is manage the systems we currently have, and to understand that the technical-part is just as important as the socio-part. We are lucky to have them at all, albeit perhaps that is both a blessing and a curse.
The funny thing is that for a long time these systems have been around, and we have been using them. Although we tended to only use them when we saw fit and were inclined to experiment. Now, though, we have adopted them in a way we didn’t imagine, and suddenly gradual learning is out the window and we are having training and technical expectations thrown at us like a rotten tomato review.
That’s not to say that we can’t do it, but (against their promotional models) I do believe it would help if online platforms would make it easier to shut them the hell up from time to time. And if that doesn’t work, we just have to do a little digging to find our sanity again. It’s not impossible, but it is a damn pain. At least then we’ll be able to sleep at night, knowing that email can wait till morning, because believe it or not, the world won’t end if it does.